‘Looking for an Icon’


Made to honor the 50th anniversary of the “World Press Photo of the Year,” this documentary fails as both birthday present and theoretical inquiry. The film focuses on four modern “icons”: a Vietnamese soldier shooting a dissident in the head; a student blocking a line of tanks at Tiananmen Square; Salvador Allende just before death, AK-47 in hand; and a wounded soldier from the first Gulf War, his friend in a body bag beside him. The interviews, courtesy of the surviving photographers and critic David Levi Strauss, ask all the standards: Does a photo distort the event? Who controls the image? How does the image control history? All very Media Theory 101. The real questions start when one critic suggests that the Allende photo is an icon only as an idea, and the Gulf photo only because the press was restricted. That, of course, is why neither is actually an icon, just a contest winner. Shadowing the whole enterprise is the absence of My Lai and Abu Ghraib—ineligible since they weren’t professionally shot—not to mention, more obviously, the first 100 years of photography. The film, contrived to avoid its own constraints, misses the contest’s most fascinating question: Why, over the course of 50 years, they selected so few iconic images.